Thursday, November 4, 2010

Christopher Howell on "Edvard Munch" and "The Circular Saw Children"

Shortly before writing “Edvard” I had been thinking about Munch, of how he had said that, as a painter, he did not need to know what he was doing, but only that he was doing it in order to find out. I had been thinking that this is kind of the way I write, in response to some compulsion or sound, shapeless except for the urgency it excites. And I just follow it, kind of dowsing toward satisfaction. I did not have Munch specifically in mind when the poem began; but as the female figure revealed herself and the context broadened, something like the feeling his paintings stir in me came out of the wall behind me and looked over my shoulder.

I didn’t look back, of course, I just kept writing, listening for its approval, letting World War One (the defining event of Munch’s generation) come in there, letting the lost child of the poem, all the lost children, become death itself, maybe.

Then I was astonished to find that, through the agency of the war weary soldiers, the speaker himself comes into the poem, in the act of writing this very poem, drinking the very tea I am drinking now (Barry’s Gold, by the way), the soldiers not so very happy to find him there, again, probing, constant as the rain:

. . . always the withered
flowers and haunted look of a girl
going nowhere and a road that stops
while seeming to go on. Always someone
lifting tea through its own steam
as he writes on a yellow pad.
Always the disgrace of his probing
and then the rain…

It is, I hope, as though the scene of desolation imagines the speaker, that accepting this is the price the speaker must pay for imagining it. I loved that, and the birds that cannot be anything but black. Nearly everything in the poem has this darkness, except the nameless red bird (line seven) that is not there, is perhaps a figment of the girl’s hysteria that is, in fact, the hysteria of defeat—and not simply that of an army, but of everyone, really, in the face of war’s seeming inevitability and its uniformly horrific results.

And what would the Kaiser say, having set all this in motion and seeing it now, seeing death in a lost girl, the soldier’s bottomless indifference? Listening to this question literally cools the tea; and perhaps the speaker wakes, more or less, vaguely ashamed, and the girl is alone and there is no one left in the poem to name the flowers, if the flowers are really there.

And that is Edvard Munch, that is the kind of psychological landscape into which his work can bring you. So his name seemed to me a good title for the poem, though the poem is not about him. Whatever it was looking over my shoulder noted this, took a deep breath and went home.


“The Circular Saw Children,” is not as ghostly, has a different sort of narrative drive. And, of course, use of the first person plural has the contradictory effect of removing the reader grammatically while at the same time drawing him or her closer rhetorically to both the action and the narrator’s tone. It is a tone and manner with which most of us are familiar from having spent much of childhood in the menacing and enchanted forest of the fairy tale.

I have written a number of poems in this manner, and I trace my impulse (or freedom) to do so to Andre Breton, who said, in the First Manifesto, “There are fairy tales to be written for adults, fairy tales still almost blue.” He was speaking, more broadly, of childhood’s freedom from the kinds of psychic constraints that lead, in adulthood, to dreariness, rage, conformity, and nameless and unnecessary terrors. In childhood we are free, he felt, to confront these matters with a psychic purity unoppressed by reason, personal and cultural guilt, or the mindless dray horse of strict believability. Therefore the path to the Marvelous, he believed, lead through that zone of the mind where childhood’s powers and creatures remained in tact, that is in the unconscious. If in childhood we are free to confront imposed restraints or explore the outrageous liberation that may result from banishing such restraints in the relative safety of the tale that can go anywhere, plumb any depth or vault over any barrier, then such tales (or poems), composed in later life, may open the secret doors leading to the monumental intelligence of dreams.

While I don’t really buy this entirely (and there are flies in the ointment: actual children seem to have left Breton more or less unmoved), it is certainly true that the tale leading away from reason, into the Greenworld or the dark, may bring back to us knowledge that is both ancient and entirely new. “Circular Saw” wants to establish itself as this kind of journey right away, with “We waited, of course, to become disks.” I think it is the “of course” that brings forth the chill that suggests an alternate world. And as the poem moves along, what emerges is an alternate moral vision, one in which shape trumps all ethical considerations, flattening and unifying them in a perfectly closed system of action and regard.

. . . We thought
it would be perfect to be endless
edges gliding, perhaps flung
and cutting things off at the knees.

The cruelty of such circumstance
would not belong to us
but to the shape of us
merely, an accident of science…

In a way the poem slips back through Breton to Lautreamont and De Sade, their argument that moral perfection must permit complete freedom of thought and action, including the cruel and bestial. But what I hope the poem discovers during its fairy tale like descent into the unconscious, is that perfect systems lack passion, which means they also lack remorse. I honor the surrealists for their devotion to the mind’s release from bondage (no pun intended), but there are reasons why we grow out of childhood, and not all of them have to do with securing gainful employment. There is also the matter of growing into a capacity to integrate the range of human feeling, of not becoming monsters of perfection who coolly drown our neighbors.

I guess in that sense “Circular Saw” is a political poem. This is another result of the first person plural point of view, the poem has a social component, as a fairy tale must: it opposes systems that worship the pathology of perfection—which the poem expresses in terms of the circular. By negative example, it comes down on the side of messy, passionate, angular, beautiful human life. I didn’t know I was going to write about this when I started; I simply followed that first line, the voice of it, to see where it wanted to go. Then again, maybe this is what I’m always writing about, one way or another, and I’m happy with that.


  1. I've both read other accounts concerning, and experienced personally, the way that visual art can facilitate speech between poet and page, often aiding in the communication of ideas that were difficult to organize beforehand (and not necessarily in a typical ekphrastic mode.) I'm most interested in the moment where you describe Munch entering the space of your poem despite you not having him in mind when beginning the composition. After Munch was there, could you explore the subject with more ease or did the identification of the newly-arrived, specific dynamic of Munch arouse more complexity in the arrangement? Or, to clarify that a bit more, did consciously working with Munch in mind after initially beginning with the same aesthetic then unlabeled pose any obstacles or a struggle to balance the Howell with the Munch?

  2. Hello Christopher,

    The Circular Saw... I found it fascinating, how you managed to evoke the dark ways of the unconscious (object (the maternal gaze), drive, transference, repetition, signifiers shifting with desire ('saw')) in this light tone. A child's logic, simple and pure, speaks through it ('of course'), the 'we' evokes, to me that is, what happens in the human psyche when a child is negated as a subject, and the shadow of the object falls upon him or her, like in melancoly.
    Plenty of us carrying that around.
    I didn't find it less ghostly than the Munch poem, on the contrary.
    The bursts of imagination inside it ('a sudden bright blue rose...') are the light or the life in this dead-serious darkness.
    This light tone, matter-of-factly, and the irony with which you let the child(ren) speak about this truly dark stuff, how one would simply do anything to fit into the mother's desire, in vain, and then go on, beyond reason, into the absurd, giving up limbs if necessary, losing oneself, becoming circular, to begin te resemble the beloved object of a (narcissistic) mother, the mirror, makes this poem so touching.
    Tragical and not without black humour, it struck me mostly as being true.
    And made me think of Julianne Moore's role, the mother, in the movie 'The Hours' (one wouldn't find the comical part there, though).

    The way you cut the stanza's, freely, just to work the tension of the narrative, and deliver the line, or a word, is a simple yet perfect example of how form should follow music, tension,... and not vice versa.

    I liked the Munch poem a lot too. It rings some bells for a European with a family history well-braided into the wars of last century, and scarred by them too. Granddad's stories. About coming back home from... Prussia. And trying to tell something about it without screaming.
    Using, again, phantasy, colour, the comfort of a historical perspective by way of... tea, perfect for peace, time.

    So, thanks.